The Passenger

Andrzej Munk

Poland, 1963



Phenomena of Nazi concentration camps


Human behaviour in extreme situations
Responsibility for one’s own choices



In literature and art the topic of concentration camps is usually discussed from the perspective of the victims. The death camp in such an understanding becomes a place where innocent people were subjected to physical and psychological tortures by their degenerate overseers, who acted on the orders of the totalitarian regime and in the name of its distorted values. Zofia Posmysz’s The Passenger is one of the first artistic works that tell the story from another point of view. The film presents the camp reality through they eyes of someone who ruled that place and who, from the present-day perspective, should be considered a torturer. The Passenger broke a certain kind of taboo of martyrological literature. It is a study of a moral duel between the torturer and the victim, as well as an attempt at dealing with one’s own dishonourable past. The film also addresses the issues of guilt, punishment and the possibility of redemption.


The Passenger met with a lot of interest at the festival in Cannes in 1964 and it is probably the most internationally recognized film directed by Munk. It was perhaps due to the importance of the topic, but also the surprising perspective and the universal character of the story, which departs in many aspects from a straightforward historical account concerning concentration camps and becomes an in-depth psychological analysis of the relationship between an SS woman an a female prisoner.

K. Winiewicz,
Wspomnienia o Andrzeju Munku [in:] Andrzej Munk ,
collective work edited by A. Jackiewicz,
Warsaw 1964

Munk’s preparation to making that film was very thorough. He collected materials, familiarized himself with any accessible sources and always kept a diary of Rudolf Hoess, a former commanding officer of the Auschwitz camp, by him. However, he did realize that such a controversial political, philosophical and ethical issue is extremely difficult to discuss using artistic means of expression and he did feel the heavy burden of responsibility. He had been working on the script for several months and was never fully satisfied with the final version.

Wiktor Woroszylski,
„Nad »Pasażerką«”, Film, 1963, issue 38.
Munk used up 1700 m of film for the Auschwitz flashback (i.e. all planned scenes) and several hundred metres for the present-day part of the story (i.e. only fragments). Auschwitz presented by Munk outgrew the shooting script, although did not divert from it in terms of action. Nevertheless, his vision, which was almost palpable, combined with the intense background realism and the excellent performance of the main cast, gave that part of the film a whole new dimension. The present-day scenes (aboard the ship) lack that depth, perhaps due to their fragmentary character and incompleteness.
Konrad Eberhardt, Przeciw niepamięci, Film, 1963, issue 40
The greatness of The Passenger lies in the fact that the Auschwitz female torturer, a subordinate of other torturers, is portrayed as a human being whom we are able to understand. This provides us with an even better opportunity to observe how crime takes roots among feelings that are, in fact, typical of all people, and almost verges on good deeds. This is important.
Quote from prof. Tadeusz Lubelski
as cited in: Zofia Magdziak, Mija 50 lat od premiery filmu „Pasażerka”

In his Histoire(s) du cinéma Jean-Luc Godard discussed The Passenger in more details than any other Polish film. He even said once that this is the best film about war that had been ever made due to the very fact that it was not made smooth and elegant, but remained mutilated and incomplete.

Prof. Ewelina Nurczyńska-Fidelska,
Tajemnice niedokończonego arcydzieła,

…ascetic vision of the camp reality. The images, selected from the overwhelming, terrifying reality, serve as a toned-down background for an individual drama. Wires, barracks, the ramp, the crematorium, long lines of female prisoners, piles of items sorted by them – all these set the borders of that model, totalitarian country and tells about its structure, organization and system of functioning. However, in one point they stop being only a background of that individual drama and become a source of evidence and argumentation in their own right.
…The criminal’s normality sheds a new light on that accusation. Munk is looking for Liza’s “ordinariness” not only in the mechanisms of the world she was a part of. He is searching her psychological determinants for human conduct. In other words, he tries to find a human aspect of a dehumanized world.



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